CUMBERLAND, Ky. — Coal miners have been camped out for eight weeks just outside this town of 2,000 in Harlan County blocking Blackjewel bosses from moving trainloads of coal. Blackjewel LLC, the sixth largest coal company in the U.S., declared bankruptcy July 1, laying off 300 workers here and 1,400 more in Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. The company clawed back paychecks deposited in the miners’ bank accounts.
Upon hearing the bankrupt company was about to haul out the coal that miners had mined for no pay, Chris Sexton had had enough.
“Sexton saw the train was moving and decided to go stand on the tracks,” laid-off Blackjewel roof bolter Chris Rowe told the Militant at the encampment Sept. 17. “He went on Facebook Messenger and started messaging everyone that he could to come down to the tracks. Ended up being 200 people. The state police came but just stood there, and ended up leaving.”
Later the Department of Labor declared the coal “hot goods” and got a court order to keep the company from moving it. The bosses contested that ruling in court. The bankruptcy judge in Charleston, West Virginia, set a mid-October deadline for the company and miners to reach a settlement.
“Miners have been treated rough around here for a long time,” Rowe said. “But this was the end. We got to take it back.” The protest has struck a chord with workers and others who learned about it.
Moral and material support has flowed in from across this coal-mining region, from all over Kentucky, from across the United States and from other countries.
“Yesterday the Harlan County Community Action Agency had a food drive and brought a lot of food out. I’m going to make food boxes,” Stacy Rowe, Chris’ wife, and, like him, a stalwart at the blockade, told the Militant Sept. 22.
“A class of third graders from Lexington sent letters with a picture of a wallet filled with money for us. Kids from a middle school and grade school stopped by to give support,” she said. “One older couple came from Liberty with 100 watermelons, 30 cartons of eggs and 20 pounds of bacon. Connor James, the reporter from WYMT-TV in Hazard, stayed with us at the camp for three days.”
Six weeks ago a group of United Mine Workers of America retirees and officials came and spoke at the camp, Chris Rowe said. About 60 people were there. Rowe sports a UMWA cap. “They came from all over, trying to bring the union back to Harlan. Some people are against the union, but as long as the company is made to do right, I’m for it.”
Chris and Stacy Rowe said it’s become difficult to maintain a really large presence at the camp, as miners get other mine jobs, some out of state. Some, like Chris Sexton, are studying full time to get their CDL commercial truck driver’s license. Others have gone to school.
But that doesn’t deter Chris and Stacy Rowe or the others who are staying. “You got to stay out until the job gets done,” Chris Rowe said. They have been thinking about the importance of what they are doing as an example for other workers. “If you’re being treated the way we were, stand up for what’s right. Nothing will change until we get the working class to come out and shut down production.”
C’mon down to the camp!
It’s possible the negotiations ordered by the judge will result in an acceptable settlement, Chris Rowe said by phone Sept. 23. “But in the meantime, anyone who wants to come out and join us on the tracks is welcome. You’ll see the tents and canopies at the tracks next to Route 119 about a mile west of Cumberland at Sandhill Bottom Road.”
Former Blackjewel miners at the Pax Mine in West Virginia got their final paychecks last week, Christina Burgess, wife of one of the miners there, told WKU public radio Sept. 19. This was because the mine has been bought by Contura Energy, which guaranteed the pay out.
Burgess is one of the administrators of the Blackjewel Employees Stand Together Facebook page, a key site for communication between miners and for getting information on their fight. She said she had appealed to dozens of state legislators for help, but felt that the miners had been abandoned. “Nothing,” she said, “We didn’t receive anything.”
Over 1,000 miners in Wyoming, Virginia and in Kentucky still haven’t been paid.
Joyce Cheng, owner of Panda Garden Chinese restaurant in Harlan, has a special place in her heart for the Blackjewel miners, many of whom regularly ate there with their families before they were laid off. She has raised more than $20,000 for the Miners Relief Fund by getting pledges for a 50-mile run and by contributing the proceeds of specially priced mini-buffet meals at the restaurant.
“I tell people, ‘Every time you get a chance, go out and stay, even for an hour, at the miners’ camp,’” Cheng told this worker-correspondent Sept. 23. “They need our support.”
Messages of solidarity, money and other contributions to the fighting miners can be sent to With Love from Harlan, P.O. Box 1621, Harlan, KY 40831. Checks should be payable to the community organization “With Love From Harlan,” with “Coal Miner Fund” on the check’s memo line.
And, as Chris Rowe says, “C’mon down.”
Samantha Hamlin contributed to this article.